Soon into the techno-thriller Ghost Fleet by P.W. Singer and August Cole, the commanding officer of the USS Coronado instructs his officers: “I want you to think about the various trends, the why, and the what-next.” The CO might as well have been channeling the authors or vice versa. Both Singer and Cole are experienced, serious, and respected non-fiction authors, but their first foray into fiction is important in answering the CO’s questions. Fiction sometimes offers a means of explaining trends and issues that might be more advantageous than non-fiction. The general public might not be interested in or have available Congressional Research Service and Congressional Budget Office reports or think tank studies. Fiction, however, has the ability to bridge that gap between the defense infrastructure and the public. For example, how many secular readers would have been familiar with Typhoon– or Los Angeles-class submarines prior to The Hunt for Red October? Ghost Fleet similarly renders technology and its applications to a possible war with China understandable to anyone. More importantly, its often jaw-dropping explorations of how new technologies might be used should make this book required reading for all military personnel, who will undoubtedly encounter these technologies firsthand.
At an International Thriller Writers conference in New York several years ago, a panelist said that a fiction writer is given a great deal of latitude. He or she can get any fact wrong — except facts related to firearms. I learned that lesson the hard way after the publication of my first novel, The Aden Effect, when the only critical emails I received were related to the capabilities of a particular weapon. On that count, one scene in Ghost Fleet is set in room SR-216, the McCain Senate Office Building. Unless the Russell Senate Office Building was renamed, then room numbers have a prefix of “S” for Senate and second letter after whom it was named (“H” for Hart and “D” for Dirksen). Consequently, the room should have been SM-216. That’s it. That’s about all I can offer as a critique of this book. It is fantastic.
Set in the near-future, Ghost Fleet begins at a staccato pace with the introduction of countless new characters and situations. Technologies seemingly materialize on every page at a dizzying pace, but perhaps that’s the authors’ point — at no time in history have so many inventions exploded onto the market so quickly. If we are unprepared for the barrage of new technologies on each page, how can we adapt so that we have time to understand them and their consequences in the real world? In addition, it reminds us that the next war could be death by a thousand cuts rather than overwhelming force by conventional platforms. Singer and Cole could well have mired the book in details of each technology. But instead of immersing the readers in Department of Defense program element descriptions of basic research, applied research, and advanced technology demonstration programs, the authors insert each technology at a steady pace without slowing down the various plotlines.
The authors’ respective knowledge of the military shines clearly throughout the work. Some readers will instantly recognize the admiral who’s abandoned standard PowerPoint briefs for the single-picture slide to tell a story, the shipbuilding funding support from a particular senator, or in-the-weeds Navy programs such as PACE (Program for Afloat College Education.) The authors also aren’t shy about subtly critiquing lengthy acquisition times for ships such as the Ford-class aircraft carrier or the less-than-subtle jab at the Littoral Combat Ship with “a main gun fit for chasing away pirates, but not much more.”
The work has plenty to keep readers attentive, including military history and pop culture references such as direct and indirect homages to the Battlestar Galactica reboot, Star Trek, Red Dawn, and Tron. This is a book best savored in as few sittings as possible. The authors are clear enough in their message that America is vulnerable, and they’re right. But they’re also correct that innovative thinking will save us in the end. Ghost Fleet is the best techno-thriller since Red Storm Rising.
Claude Berube teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy. His second novel, Syren’s Song, will be published by Naval Institute Press in November.